Citation Edit

Mitchell v. Superior Court, 37 Cal.3d 268, 690 P.2d 625, 208 Cal. Rptr. 152 (1984) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

The Reader’s Digest article described how the Mitchells won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports and editorials critical of Synanon, which appeared in their weekly newspaper. Synanon claimed that the articles implied that they were not successful at drug rehabilitation and that their claims of success were fraudulently made to enrich themselves. The Reader’s Digest revealed the source for the article but Synanon wanted to discover the sources’ sources and sent the Mitchells two requests to produce documents. They wanted to review all documents available to the Mitchells in order to prove that the Mitchells selectively relied on some documentary evidence and ignored other evidence more favorable to Synanon. The Mitchells objected to the requests on the ground “that it is vague and ambiguous and is overbroad, unduly burdensome.”

The Superior Court ordered the Mitchells to identify every document responsive to the document requests. The court ordered extensive disclosure of the reporters’ sources and information on the ground that there was no reporter’s privilege in California.

California Supreme Court Proceedings Edit

The Mitchells sought a writ of prohibition to prevent the Superior Court from enforcing a discovery order requiring petitioners to produce documents revealing confidential sources of information.

California law provides that "[a] publisher, editor, reporter, or other person connected with or employed upon a newspaper . . . shall not . . . be adjudged in contempt . . . for refusing to disclose the source of any information procured while so connected or employed for publication in a newspaper . . . or for refusing to disclose any unpublished information.[1] In other words, the Evidence Code provision provides that, except as otherwise provided by statute, no person has a privilege to refuse to disclose, but does prevent judicial creation of new common-law privileges.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a free press primarily because of the important role it play as a “vital source of public information”. Without an unfettered press, citizens would be far less able to make informed political, social, and economic choices. Compelled disclosure of confidential sources unquestionably threatens a journalist’s ability to secure information that is made available to him only on a confidential basis.

The question of a reporter’s privilege in civil case must be decided on a case-by-basis basis, with the trial court examining and balancing the asserted interests in light of the facts of the case before it. There is neither an absolute duty to disclose nor an absolute privilege to withhold, but instead a qualified privilege against compelled disclosure which depends on the facts of each particular case. In criminal proceedings, both the interest of the state in law enforcement and the interest of the defendant in discovering exonerating evidence outweigh any First Amendment interest asserted by journalist.

In civil cases, courts must recognize that the public interest in a non-disclosure of journalists’ confidential sources will often be weightier than the private interest in compelled disclosed. A district court has a duty to consider First Amendment interests as well as the private interests of the plaintiff. Requiring the disclosure of journalists’ sources might deter informants from giving their stories to news reporters. A defamed plaintiff might relish an opportunity to retaliate against the informant.

In civil action a reporter, editor or publisher has a qualified privilege to withhold the disclosure of the identity of confidential sources and of unpublished information supplied by such sources. The scope of that privilege in each case will depend upon consideration and weighing of a number of interrelated factors, including the nature of litigation and whether the reporter is party, the relevance of the information sought to the plaintiff's cause of action, whether the plaintiff has exhausted all alternative sources of obtaining needed information, the importance of protecting confidentiality in case at hand, and a prima facie showing that the alleged defamatory statements are false.

Disclosure by a reporter of confidential sources is appropriate in civil cases, especially when the reporter is a party to the litigation.

Mere relevance to the plaintiff's cause of action is insufficient to compel discovery of confidential sources of newspersons; disclosure should be denied unless the information goes to the heart of plaintiff's claim. If a source, acting with actual malice, furnishes defamatory material to the publisher with the expectation that the material, either verbatim or in substance will be published, the source should be liable for the publication. Discovery of the newsperson's confidential sources and unpublished information should be denied unless the plaintiff has exhausted all alternative sources of obtaining the needed information.

When a reporter's confidential sources and unpublished information relates to matters of great public importance, and when the risk of harm to the source is a substantial one, the court may refuse to require disclosure even though the plaintiff has no other way of obtaining the essential information.

The Court held that: (1) in a civil action a reporter, editor or publisher has a qualified privilege to withhold disclosure of the identity of confidential sources and of unpublished information supplied by such sources and the scope of that privilege in each particular case will depend upon the consideration and weighing of number of interrelated factors, and (2) the generality of plaintiffs' request, the absence of a showing that alternative sources had been exhausted, and the absence of a prima facie showing of falsity struck the balance against discovery of the confidential sources or information furnished by them.

References Edit

  1. Cal. Evid. Code §1070 and constitutional amendment art. I, § 2, subd. (b).

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